Borders and Borderlands: Integration vs Assimilation
Borders are artificial constructs drawn on paper by the powers that be to serve their interests under the Westphalian State system and have been further legitimised by the excesses of colonialism from the fifteenth to the twentieth century C.E., as well as the subsequent decolonisation process. Such man-made schemes have expanded into colossal folly, displacing and dividing people, their livelihoods, belief systems, and cultures throughout time as a result of the contestation between diverse groups, with their respective world views and belief systems, in their goal of capturing power. Whatever the overriding power of the nation-state model appears to be in current times, one cannot disregard entirely the underlying and frequently overlapping and contending forces of sub-nationalism and globalisation around the world. History is replete with examples of once-thriving towns being divided by imaginary lines sketched across drawing boards in distant centres of power, resulting in widespread displacement and tremendous misery and trauma.
One of the best examples was the partition of the Indian sub-continent into two halves in 1947, wherein the two frontier regions of Punjab and Bengal suffered the most. The resultant cross-migration of people in the two newly formed dominions of India and Pakistan left a permanent scar in the collective psyche of the people of both these regions and left an indelible mark on the history of South Asia. The poignancy of the situation in Punjab has been aptly captured in the writings of Sadat Hasan Manto, especially in his story Toba Tek Singh, amongst others. Literature and the mass media have recorded these events vividly and they evoke strong emotions among the people of the regions even today. The sense of belongingness to a common culture, language, and history pervades other barriers put up by the Westphalian state and its instruments of power, despite the acceptance of ground realities and the urge to move on towards a better future.
Along with the Punjab and Bengal, India’s Northeastern Region (NER) has experienced its fair share of woes and gains due to the partition. The NER’s contact with the rest of the world was severed with the creation of East Pakistan, except through a sliver of land widely known as the Chicken Neck/Siliguri Corridor, which is hemmed in by Nepal, Bhutan, China, and Bangladesh. The centuries-old riverine and overland route systems connecting the Indian mainland with Southeast Asia and Southwest China via the NER, known as the Southern Silk Route, led to the formation of a geo-economic, if not a geopolitical, unit. As Prof. Haraprasad Ray beautifully illustrates in his book, Trade and Trade Routes Between India and China, c. 140 B.C.-A.D. 1500 (2003), the Indic and Sinic civilisations converged in Southeast Asia through overlapping spheres of influence, focusing more on trade, commerce, religion, and cultural exchange than outright political contestations.
The NER was an integral part of this system of interconnection between different regions. The famous Chinese monk Hieun Tsang, who travelled in the early seventh century to bring the Buddhist scriptures back to Tang China from the courts of the Pushyabhuti emperor Harshavardhana and the powerful Kamarupa monarch Kumar Bhaskarvarmana, mentioned a short but dangerous route back to his homeland through Kamarupa, likely referring to the Southern Silk Route. In what was a mad rush for resources and markets amongst the European powers, colonial officials and adventurers like Jean Baptiste Chevalier, John M’cosh, Francis Buchanan Hamilton, R.B. Pemberton, and Alexander Mackenzie, amongst others, explored the mountainous regions of NER, SW China, and SE Asia in the 18th to 20th centuries, leaving vivid accounts of the land and its people in their reports. For instance, in the year 1809 C.E., when the Ahom king Kamaleswar Singha was in power, annual trade between Assam, Bhutan, and Tibet totaled two hundred thousand Indian rupees. The value of the goods traded included everything from silver and horses to gold dust, musk, dried fish, salt, cowries, and a variety of other commodities. Before Communist China’s conquest of Tibet in 1950, Sadiya (now Assam) and Rima (now Tibet) were bustling commercial centres with trade agents from both countries present.
On a personal note, the author remembers his grandfather narrating the journey one would undertake from Dibrugarh in Upper Assam to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the pre-1947 era. Taking a steamship journey from Dibrugarh to Guwahati and then onwards, a train journey to Calcutta was the norm. The train would meander its way through the North Cachar Hills, the plains of Sylhet, involving a gauge change near Dhaka, and then further to the destination. One recalls the twinkle in his eyes when the old gentleman talked about relishing delicious mutton curry and rotis at the Dhaka Railway Station during those journeys while pursuing his graduation at St. Paul’s College in Calcutta. The Assam – Bengal Railways and the Brahmaputra-Ganga riverine routes formed the backbone of this connectivity between the NER and the rest of the world, a link with its memories severed by the events of 1947 and thereafter.
This author had the good opportunity to visit Longwa, the northernmost village in Nagaland, in 2018. It remains an interesting case study of the borderlands because the village that straddles the India-Myanmar international border is inhabited by the Konyak Nagas. The border divides the chief’s hut and the village church into two halves, where the meaning of the Westphalian state system still needs time to percolate into the collective psyche of the local people; where Kohima, New Delhi, Sagaing, and Naypwitaw are distant peripheries to their own core in Longwa; where the locals still feel proud of their oral folklore depicting their prowess both in battles and hunting expeditions; where their worldview is clearly limited to Longwa itself; where the Indian Army and the Burmese Tatmadaw need further acceptance; and wherein the international border is non-existent emotionally, albeit made soft by the 16-kilometre free movement regime instituted by both the countries throughout the entire length of their 1,643 km border.
It is essential for the current generation to understand that the highlands of NER, SW China, and SE Asia have had strong social, cultural, and religious ties for generations. These areas have also acted as the periphery of the centralised polities of mainland China, India, and other valley-based governments in Southeast Asia. This massive landmass, variously referred to as the Southeast Asian Massif by the Dutch historian Willem van Schendel and Zomia by the Yale University historian James C. Scott, has provided space and succour to merchants, adventurers, refugees, etc., evolving into zones of refuge and leading to the development of new identities over time. In addition, many different cultures have interethnic family ties. Some examples of such groups include the Jingpos of Yunnan, the Kachins of Myanmar, and the Singphos of Assam. Other examples include the Dai of Yunnan, the Hmongs of Vietnam, the Thais of Thailand, the Shans of Myanmar, and the Tai communities of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh (India). A result of colonialism’s avarice and opportunism, as well as decolonization’s requirements, have separated the Naga tribes of India and Myanmar from one another, as have the Mizos and Chins of India and Myanmar, respectively.
Despite the Westphalian model’s emphasis on the inviolability of the nation-state and its borders, guarded by trained military men, problems stemming from historical recollections and local/communitarian aspirations persist at the grass-roots level. Providing proper safety valves to let off steam is especially challenging in multi-ethnic nation-states or civilisational nations like Myanmar, India, and China. For the past half-century, the standard narrative has been that states must exert control over their borders either through military means or by enticing local elites with the promise of power and prestige in exchange for their support. In addition to attempting to implement its economic development plan, the state has been working to improve the living conditions of the communities in these areas in an effort to wean them away from violence. The government and non-government organisations and the media might do more to bridge the cultural gap between the urban centre and the rural periphery by incorporating local histories, belief systems, and cultural symbols into the national classics. An encouraging development has taken place in India’s NER over the past several years, but much more needs to be observed in the cases of China and Myanmar. Time, along with human intention and behaviour, would be the ultimate healer in soothing such frontiers past the grave scars left by colonisation. The region’s authorities shouldn’t overlook the importance of acknowledging the special characteristics of the periphery while also integrating it fully into the centre.